Who owns a simian selfie? Wikimedia says the monkey does

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

A famous selfie taken by a primate photographer is stirring controversy over conflicting copyright claims and raising new questions about the concept of public domain.


Wikimedia, the organization behind Wikipedia, is refusing to remove a selfie taken by a monkey that was uploaded to the Internet without the permission of the camera's human owner. Instead, the editors of Wikimedia decided that the simian selfie belongs to the monkey that snapped the photo, and not the guy who owns the camera, according to a Wikimedia transparency report that details all removal requests.


British nature photographer David Slater thinks Wikimedia's decision is monkey business, and argues that putting his photograph in the public domain has hurt his ability to make a living as a photographer.

Slater told the British daily Telegraph that the photo was taken during a trip to Indonesia in 2011. When he approached the crested black macaques, "one of the animals came up to investigate his equipment, hijacked the camera and took hundreds of selfies," Slater told the Telegraph.

He says when he got his camera back most of the images were blurry and unusable. But one of the shots became an epic, full-smiled selfie, which made headlines across the world.

Now, thanks to Wikimedia's decision to classify it as public domain, anyone can publish the monkey selfie without paying a royalty to Slater.


“For every 100,000 images I take, one makes money that keeps me going. And that was one of those images. It was like a year of work, really,” he told the Telegraph.

Slater said he is threatening to take the company to court. But he might have a hard time convincing the judge, according to copyright and entertainment lawyer Mark Fischer, of Duane Morris legal firm in Boston.


Generally speaking, Fischer says, "only humans can create copyrightable work."

He defends Wikimedia's right to classify the photo as public domain, arguing that they have the authority to make the same decisions regarding fair use as any other media company. However, Fischer warns, if Wikimedia is taken to court and found to be in violation of copyright, "everyone who is involved in infringement of a copyright is liable."


That means all the websites and newspapers that have published the photo could be held accountable, even if they trusted Wikimedia's judgement that the image was in the public domain.

Sometimes human selfies are also subject to copyright disputes. The "most famous selfie of all time," a pic that Ellen DeGeneres famously orchestrated at the 2014 Oscars, has faced similar questions of ownership.


The Associated Press asked DeGeneres for permission to use the image for editorial purposes, which she granted. The wire service even made a blog post dedicated to the famous picture.


But actor Bradley Cooper could be the owner of the copyright since he snapped the shot, according to Los Angeles-area entertainment lawyer Ethan Kirschner.

"Historically," Kirschner told the Wire, "it's always been the person who pressed the shutter who's technically the person that owns copyright."


Not everyone agrees. Eric Spiegelman, another entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles, told Wired that Degeneres owns the rights for famous Oscars selfie because she "came up with the idea for the selfie and proceeded to execute it."

The proverbial jury is still out on that one. As for the monkey shot, Slater would have to come up with an estimated $16,000 to take the case to court, according to the Telegraph.


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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